Friday 15 March 2019

Viewpoint: Susan Blumberg-Kason

Viewpoint is a new occasional column inviting authors to write about anything they want, as long as it's of interest to readers of Asian Books Blog. Susan Blumberg-Kason kicks-off the new series, with a discussion of cultural sensitivity and the making of Hong Kong Noir.

Chicago-based Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Asian Review of Books. Her work has also appeared in The Frisky, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and the South China Morning Post.

The Noir anthologies are an award-winning series of collections of new stories, each one set in a distinct neighbourhood or location within  a chosen city. Hong Kong makes a fantastic location, and, in Hong Kong Noir, fourteen of the city’s finest authors explore the dark heart of the Pearl of the Orient in haunting tales of depravity and despair. Contributors include Jason Y. Ng, Xu Xi, Marshall Moore, Brittani Sonnenberg, Tiffany Hawk, James Tam, Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, Christina Liang, Feng Chi-shun, Charles Philipp Martin, Shannon Young, Shen Jian, Carmen Suen, and Ysabelle Cheung.

So, over to Susan...

I first became aware of Akashic Books’ Noir series about 10 years ago, maybe 4-5 years after it began in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. I checked for a Hong Kong edition, but didn’t see one. For over a decade, I hoped someone would edit Hong Kong Noir so I could read it. But as the city started to change drastically—both aesthetically and politically—in the middle of this decade, I started to worry that Hong Kong as we know it would soon be a thing of the past. And if there was to be a Hong Kong Noir that represents the city we love, I thought there was never a better time to pitch Akashic. In late 2016, I spoke with my agent, Carrie Pestritto and she was all for it.

After Carrie pitched my proposal, Akashic was super excited about Hong Kong Noir and asked me to bring on a co-editor on the ground in Hong Kong. Jason Y. Ng was the natural choice and had already agreed to be a contributor. While Jason and I finalised the contributor list after he came on as co-editor, we paid close attention to representation and made sure the majority of our contributors live in Hong Kong now and are Chinese (the two are not always mutually exclusive in our book). We had about an equal number of women and men, representation from the LGBTQ community in Hong Kong, a Eurasian contributor, writers in their twenties through seventies and every decade in between, and contributors (and editors) that represent a variety of religions including agnostics. Our contributors are local Cantonese Chinese, mainland-born refugees, and expats from two continents. It wasn’t a perfect representation of Hong Kong, but it came pretty close.

When Jason and I edited the fourteen stories, including his, we paid careful attention to cultural sensitivity. As it turned out, four stories prominently featured mainland characters and this was something Jason and I were especially sensitive about since tensions between locals and mainland migrants/travellers are especially controversial in Hong Kong. Thanks to Tiffany Hawk and Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, two of the mainland male protagonists rose up in Hong Kong society after completing UK educations in the 1980s and 90s. Feng Chi-shun’s mainland protagonist was a calculating young woman whom I cheered from the sidelines in light of the #MeToo movement. And Charles Philipp Martin’s southern Chinese thief is sympathetic as he came of age during China’s most rapid socio-economic changes and was determined to do whatever he could to get married and make his family proud.

Readers and reviewers didn’t seem have problems with any of the above. That was a relief. But there was another issue. First, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of supernatural stories. Some exceptions are Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After and Lawrence Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player. When the contributors submitted their stories, many included supernatural elements and—surprise—I loved them all. Maybe I was turning a corner or perhaps—just like with the books I mentioned above—stories set in Hong Kong (or Taiwan as is the case with Pan’s novel) work well in the supernatural since that’s such a big part of Chinese culture. But as I learned, not everyone appreciated this understanding and it became obvious even before the book’s December 2018 publication date.

In the October 15, 2018 issue of Publishers Weekly, the Hong Kong Noir reviewer wrote this: "Readers will get a fair picture of Hong Kong’s culture and history, though many will wish the volume focused more on crime and less on the otherworldly."

I am always grateful for reviews, no matter what they say, and completely understand where this reviewer is coming from since he/she isn’t into the otherworldly. But I have to say that Hong Kong Noir wouldn’t do justice to the city without the supernatural. To me, noir varies according to culture and place. Gangsters are an essential part of noir in cities like Chicago, New York, and Hong Kong. These cities also specialise in police dramas. Hong Kong Noir includes both, thanks to Charles Philipp Martin and Marshall Moore. But not all volumes in the Noir series focus only on cops and gangsters. For instance, Haiti Noir came out in 2010 and includes stories with vodou. It otherwise wouldn’t be representative of Haiti. The same goes for Hong Kong when it comes to holidays like the Hungry Ghost Festival (Yulan) or the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Ching Ming). These holidays involve spirits and are so important in Hong Kong that both are public holidays. Hong Kong funeral rituals also involve the supernatural.

Sometimes these customs are taken too literally, as I learned last summer when I asked the Hong Kong government’s US East Coast office if they could sponsor the Hong Kong Noir New York launch in 2019. When I started to describe the book, I sensed it might be a hard sell. I lauded the prestige of the series and that Hong Kong will finally be celebrated in it. But when I spoke about the nature of the stories (they’re all dark), it seemed like I already knew the answer. This just wasn’t the sort of book the Hong Kong government wanted to promote, even though it was fiction. I followed up via e-mail with examples of the support the Singapore government gave to Singapore Noir, but to no avail. I was disappointed, but not surprised. I understood where the government office was coming from, even though the cities in the other 100 noir volumes didn’t suffer when those books came out. We ended up having our launch at the Museum of Chinese in America and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

What I’ve learned from the publication of Hong Kong Noir is that authors and editors need to be culturally sensitive, but culture also influences how people view books. Ultimately, it’s best for authors and editors to write what’s in their hearts. If others want to put together a Hong Kong anthology without ghost or dark stories, count me in as a reader.